As dominant was Walker Buehler was at times, as overpowering as he was for most of his start, he was a source of heart-thumping anxiety Wednesday night. And this was only one game.
If the Dodgers are to win the World Series this year, there will be three more rounds of this.
Three more rounds of wondering whether the blister on Buehler’s pitching hand will reappear.
Three more rounds of guessing whether his arm is sufficiently built up to pitch more than a handful of innings.
Three more rounds of questioning the quality of relievers behind him.
Suddenly, their rotation doesn’t look as stacked and their advantage on offense less pronounced.
The Dodgers don’t look as invincible.
But he also pitched only four innings.
Julio Urías replaced him at the start of the fifth inning.
Buehler, who pitched only once in the last 19 days of the regular season, departed with a pitch count of 73.
The Dodgers were carefully monitoring Buehler’s blister and pitch count, which is why they started the 26-year-old right-hander in Game 1. Clayton Kershaw could reset the bullpen in Game 2, which would permit manager Dave Roberts to make pitching changes more liberally in a potential Game 3.
There are scheduled days off between rounds, but not between games of any wild-card, division or league championship series.
Which means Buehler’s vulnerabilities could really hurt the Dodgers.
They were able to use Urias as a reliever Wednesday, but could very well need him to start in each of the next two rounds.
The more upbeat view is that the Dodgers are fortunate to have Buehler available in any capacity.
“For Walker,” Roberts said, “I would probably say it’s been his most trying season.”
While the Dodgers instructed most of their pitchers to continue throwing after they departed from spring training because of the coronavirus pandemic, they decided to shut down Buehler, who underwent reconstructive elbow surgery shortly after they drafted him in 2015.
“We just made a choice as an organization because we didn’t know when we were going to get started again,” Roberts said.
The downside was that when the Dodgers reconvened for summer camp, Buehler was behind their other pitchers.
Buehler didn’t make it out of the fourth inning in his first start of the pandemic-shortened regular season.
In his longest start, he pitched six innings and threw 92 pitches in a 5-1 victory over the Colorado Rockies on Aug. 21.
“Four, five starts ago, we had him in a really good spot, I thought,” Roberts said. “He was throwing his best of the season.”
Then came the blister.
Buehler pitched only three more times over the remainder of the regular season.
In his final preparation for the postseason, he was on the mound for four innings against the Oakland Athletics last week.
“I didn’t really need to see it,” Roberts said. “I just really believe in Walker.”
And this is what the Dodgers were counting on, Buehler’s appetite to be on center stage, his reputation as a big-game performer.
“It’s pretty clear and evident that there’s no lack of confidence in Walker Buehler’s game,” third baseman Justin Turner said.
Turner reminded his audience how Buehler won Game 163 in 2018, when the Dodgers defeated the Colorado Rockies in a tiebreaker to determine the NL West champion.
Or how Buehler started Game 7 of the NLCS that same year, when the Dodgers downed the Brewers to advance to the World Series.
“He doesn’t shy away from the moment,” catcher Austin Barnes said. “I don’t think it gets too big for him.”
The day before his postseason start, Buehler said he didn’t treat starts in the postseason any different from those in the regular season.
But he also pointed out that his playoff record wasn’t as pristine as many remembered.
His postseason career started in 2018 in a Dodgers loss in Game 3 of a NL Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. In the next round, he dropped his first start against the Brewers.
In both instances, the Dodgers gave him a chance to pitch another day.
“I think the biggest thing is I’ve just been on some really good teams that when I failed, it hasn’t cost us,” Buehler said.
He doesn’t have that luxury anymore.
As many runs as the Dodgers are capable of scoring, as well as Kershaw has pitched this season, he has to dominate if they are to win a championship.
Buehler has the stomach to do that. The question is whether the skin on his finger is durable enough.